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A Home Run for Bibliophiles

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If you're remotely conscious of baseball and racial history, you know about Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leagues.

But it's a good bet you've never heard of the Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars.

As IUPUI professor, author and baseball nut Chris Lamb tells it, this Little League team dominated its city back in the day. Problem was, the team was all-black, the city was Charleston, South Carolina and the year was 1955.

So when state tournament time came around, local Little League officials said no. The international Little League office overruled them. The Cannon Street boys went to the state, where they won by forfeit; all 60 white teams boycotted.

Chris Lamb, professor at IUPUI's National Sports Journalism Center, will be the keynote speaker Saturday at the Baseball Book Festival at the Anthenaeum.  - COURTESY OF IUPUI
  • Courtesy of IUPUI
  • Chris Lamb, professor at IUPUI's National Sports Journalism Center, will be the keynote speaker Saturday at the Baseball Book Festival at the Anthenaeum.

Here's where it gets cute: The team was disqualified from playing in the regionals at Rome, Georgia, gateway to the Little League World Series, because its rules state you can't advance by forfeit.

Unable to overrule that one, the international officials invited the Cannon Street All-Stars to the big show at Williamsport, Pennsylvania, as special guest spectators, where they were cheered amid chants of "Let them play! Let them play!"

"Here were 11- and 12-year-old boys who dreamed of playing in the Little League World Series," Lamb says. "And they got to watch other boys play out their dreams."

Lamb will tell the Cannon Street story this Saturday (Feb. 28th) at the Athenaeum, as keynote speaker for a gathering of writers and readers called the Baseball Book Festival. He's working on a book about the episode and has published two heavy-hitting books on the larger theme -- Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball, and Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson's First Spring Training.

"You can't really understand America without knowing baseball," he says. "You can't really understand the Civil Rights movement without knowing baseball."

Lamb's dozen or so fellow authors on the festival roster would agree; and it's safe to say most serious readers likewise would rank baseball atop all other sports as an inspiration for literature and a vehicle for journalism that goes far beyond the scores and clich├ęd quotes. The Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four may command the beer sales, but they still thirst for their John Updikes and Joe Kinsellas.

Indianapolis has not been bush league in terms of baseball history. Some of the greats played for the Triple-A Indians on their way up, and black baseball was distinguished here by the ABCs professional team and a stint by the young Henry Aaron with the barnstorming Indianapolis Clowns. More recently, the city provided scenes for the film adaptation of John Sayles' celebrated book about the 1919 "Black Sox" gambling scandal, Eight Men Out.

The oeuvre represented by the book festival's lineup has a Willie Mays range, from Lamb's deep sociology to Pete Cava's Chicago Cubs reminiscences to Doug Wilson's biographies of baseball's most disparate personalities to Jeff Stanger's whimsical novels about the L.A. Dodgers' relocating to Bloomington and a 1940s semi-pro team that goes extraterrestrial to break a losing streak.

Shown here, the Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars watch the 1955 Little League World Series from the stands, despite chants from the crowd to "Let them play!" - COURTESY OF LITTLE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL
  • Courtesy of Little League International
  • Shown here, the Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars watch the 1955 Little League World Series from the stands, despite chants from the crowd to "Let them play!"

"I think the best stories out there involve these archetypes we all look for," Stanger says of baseball's hold on the writerly and filmmaking imagination. "The quest, the adventure, the buddy movies -- they all try to achieve whatever that goal is and to go home. That's the essence of baseball."

Stanger, a nonprofit consultant and adjunct Indiana University professor when he's off the Field of Dreams, is the principle impresario of the festival, and he helped organize the previous one, in 2010, as well. He signed on this year with the proviso it must become annual.

Besides swapping stories, sharing tips and signing books, the participants will promote a good cause. Proceeds go to the local affiliate of a national organization called RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), formed in response to the sad decline of youth baseball among urban African-Americans over the past generation.

It's a latter-day segregation, brought on by economics, lack of role models, lack of green space, the preeminence of football and basketball and other factors. RBI and Stanger's tribe believe the loss goes beyond sports, to schooling and hope. RBI has an academic component, and next year's Indy book festival will feature an essay contest for young people.

Writing, for these men, has tended to be a passion equal to playing, as well as watching, baseball. Writing typically has won out, inasmuch as it does not penalize the practitioner for being small, slow afoot, or befuddled by curve balls. Doug Wilson, for example, explains that he is an ophthalmologist today rather than a leadoff hitter because his batting average on the college baseball team was lower than his grade point.

Chris Lamb grew up a Cincinnati Reds fanatic and gravitated to sports journalism and a doctorate in the discipline. It was while working for a newspaper in Florida that he learned of Jackie Robinson's harrowing 1946 season in that Jim Crow state's minor leagues, a year lost in the hoopla over the pioneer's 1947 debut with the Dodgers. It was while teaching at the College of Charleston that Lamb heard the amazing story of the Cannon Street YMCA team. All in all, the national pastime, for him, has been much more than a game.

But then, that's true of his more romantic, nostalgic and puckish colleagues as well. Jeff Stanger, for one, just loves the fact that baseball uses no clock and theoretically can have a game, some day, that never ends.

"The rhythm and pace -- there's speed but there's also reflection -- there's so many parallels to life and great literature," he says. "If you love books, you have to love baseball."

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